When Words Collide

Mon, June 8th, 2009 at 2:28pm PDT | Updated: June 8th, 2009 at 6:36pm

Comic Books
Timothy Callahan, Columnist/Reviewer

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ADVENTURES IN MoCCALAND

Inside the Armory

On Saturday morning, I packed up my pockets with some cash, the standard electronic devices -- cell phone, digital camera, voice recorder (for interviews that I never bother to get, but I still bring the recorder with me just in case) -- and waited for Cartooning's Todd Casey to pull into my driveway with his sporty Volkswagen hatchback. I hadn't seen Todd in months, though we are eternally working on some sort of comic book project together, but it was time to clear our schedules and make our way to New York City. The MoCCA Art Festival was on, and we weren't going to miss it.

I've gone to the MoCCA Festival every year since 2005, usually making the trip from Massachusetts to New York with my family, spinning them off to spend time with the in-laws who live in Manhattan while I stroll the tightly-packed aisles in the Puck Building, looking for the freshest stuff in the comic book world. This year was different, though, with the family staying at home for a gauntlet of Saturday afternoon birthday parties and little league games. It's much tougher to pack the kids up for a day trip to the city these days -- what with their pre-K through 5 social calendar -- and my wife is a champion for staying home and running around with them while I whisked off to the exotic climes of the new MoCCA Festival location: The Lexington Avenue Armory.

MoCCA's Lawrence Klein, my neighbor and traveling companion to the Albany Comic-Con (as written about in "Dr. Blasphemy's Wild Ride"), told me a while back that the MoCCA Festival had outgrown the Puck Building and the Puck Building had outgrown the idea of charging MoCCA reasonable rates to host the event. A move was inevitable, and this was the year it finally had to happen. The good news is that the Lexington Avenue Armory is a much bigger space, and you don't have to take a sweaty elevator ride just to see the final fourth of the display tables. The bad news is that it's farther away from the actual MoCCA Museum location -- which meant that we didn't get a chance to see the just-launched David Mazzucchelli exhibit -- and the Armory, even with the high vaulted ceilings, is a swelter-fest of its own.

Todd Casey talking to David Mazzuchelli

But it's the MoCCA Festival, and nobody is there for a temperate climate. Everyone's there for the comics! (Except the people who are there for the t-shirts, which may be a larger contingent than I realize. But you can get plenty of hipster t-shirts at the MoCCA show if that's what you're into. I passed on the apparel this year, though last year's "Dr. McNinja" shirt still rocks my dresser drawers.)

Cartooning's Todd Casey finally arrived to find me waiting outside my house, prepping the ancient Honda Civic for a four-hour road trip. My "prepping" of the vehicle consisted of moving the empty Gatorade bottles to the back seat's trash bag, taking the Frisbees off the passenger seat and tossing them into the trunk, and ignoring the "check engine" light that's been on for a few weeks now. The car would make it to the city and back, no problem.

So Todd and I headed off on our adventure, catching each other up on our projects -- he's currently inking a five-page story I wrote that's going to be part of an anthology I can't announce yet, but he's also got exactly one million ideas for other things we should be working on if we somehow invented a machine that would give us hundreds of extra hours per week to get things done -- and talking about family stuff you don't care about. Also, our blogs. Todd has recently joined the blogging game with his art blog "Rotting in the Berkshires," and I was sharing my blogging tips with him. I don't have a lot of tips, but the big one is: force yourself to post regularly, and once you start getting some readers, it will encourage you to post more and more. It's hard as hell to keep a blog going if you don't think anyone's reading it -- it's a pointless exercise, ultimately -- and you might as well just post pictures onto your desktop or write your thoughts in a Word doc and save it to your hard drive. But if you do develop a regular batch of readers, it gives you the impetus to keep producing, and, for an artist like Todd (who has a style that's hugely "mainstream" in the real-world sense -- a style you might see in picture books -- but looks nothing like what the direct market comic shops tend to sell by the truckload), producing stuff online is the best route to take anyway.

The Star Wars Books

Yeah, we talked a lot about online distribution, webcomics, and the future of serialization on our trip to New York. We got so caught up in our discussion, in fact, that when I jumped on I-90, I veered to the right instead of the left because I'm so used to driving toward Boston. As soon as we merged, I realized what I had done, and I realized the implications: in Western Massachussetts, you don't get another exit for at least 30 minutes. So we drove toward Springfield, resigned to our fate -- and the extra hour/hour-and-a-half it would now take us to get to New York City by going east instead of southwest. It was a dumb move, but it gave us plenty of time to talk about the big things in life -- religion, parenting, the resurrection of Jason Todd via Superboy Prime's wall punch -- and it turns out that our delay didn't matter at all because even though we arrived an hour later than we'd planned, the MoCCA Festival opened an hour later than planned as well.

So had we arrived at 11:00, we would have been waiting in line for sixty extra minutes (or more) just like all the other suckers. Ha! Take that, suckers! We wasted an hour driving in the completely wrong direction and burning fuel and angering my already wheezing old car, but at least we didn't have to stand in a line on a beautiful New York morning!

Supposedly, the delay in opening the Festival on Saturday morning had to do with some late-arriving books for some of the big guns at the show. I don't know if that's true or not -- I'll have to get confirmation from MoCCA's Lawrence Klein next time we get together to plan comic book goodness for this summer -- but the word is that Fantagraphics (and Top Shelf, maybe?) didn't get their new books by 11:00, and the Festival didn't open its doors until the high-profile vendors were ready for business. Or maybe they just didn't want to start without us.

On the way in the doors, I got to meet Jerry Robinson -- Klein Award recipient, comic book legend, and guy-who-named-Robin-and-probably-created-the-Joker-too. MoCCA's Lawrence Klein introduced us, and when Robinson learned that I came down from Massachusetts, he gave me grief about it, saying, "yes, we let your people come down here every once in a while." A zinger from the Joker's daddy. What a great way to kick off a show.

Kevin Cannon Collection

Even though I love going to the MoCCA festival, and even though I love looking at art and comics that I've never heard of before, I always end up gravitating toward the bigger booths. I know some of these artists scraped together their last few nickels to produce their lovingly-sewn, meticulously designed mini-comics, but I rarely end up buying any of them. I enjoy flipping through them, I appreciate the craftsmanship, and sometimes the artwork is astonishing, but when it comes to the MoCCA stuff, I tend to be a trade-waiter. I know that's ridiculous on so many levels. I know that I should buy these hand-stitched mini-comics because they are art objects and they won't be collected into a bound volume, ever. Meanwhile, I shell out four bucks per issue each Wednesday on superhero comics that will definitely be reprinted in more reasonably-priced trade paperback volumes. I know all of this, and yet I tend to come back from MoCCA with stuff that I probably could have just ordered from Amazon, or directly through the publisher, and if there are any fresh new artists who do work that I fall in love with -- well, I'll just check out their websites when I get back home.

Most of the artists I liked, if not all, had some sort of web presence, and the majority of those were serializing their comics online. I have to admit, that does take some of the "art object" charm away from what they're selling at MoCCA if it's just a floppy reprint of their webcomics. If that's the case, then I'd rather just wait until they have a chunky volume of their webcomics to sell. Until then, the internet is good enough for me. (Which is, I realize, exactly how some people feel about comics from Marvel and DC.)

One webcomic turned chunky -- and hugely impressive -- volume is "Far Arden" by Kevin Cannon. Published by Top Shelf, this nautical adventure tale looks handsome in presentation, and though I could have checked it out online -- I could have probably read the whole thing online -- I'd much prefer to read it in this portable hardcover brick format. So that was one of my purchases at the show, and I look forward to finishing "Far Arden" in the next week or so. (I'm about 120 pages into the 400 page book so far, and it just whips along, reading like a slice of fantasy adventure a character in a Wes Anderson movie might daydream about.)

Miss Lasko-Gross Signs

Cartooning's Todd Casey, who went his own way at the show but continued to circle back into my orbit every lap around the Armory (that's another advantage of the Armory location -- it's much easier to bump into people you're traveling with than it was at the Puck Building), pointed me toward another webcomic worth checking out: "Tiny Kitten Teeth." The first-named-only Becky and Frank had a few slickly-produced minicomics and floppies (and cutesy merchandise), and Todd gushed over their use of color, but I held off from buying anything since they didn't have any books with a spine. Great-quality, color-photocopied pages of their stapled-together webcomic didn't inspire me to spend, but I do indeed love the look of their work, and if they ever put together a collected edition, I will be sure to pick it up. Until then, I'll just enjoy the heck out of their webcomic.

I spend most of the time at the show browsing around, absorbing the exciting variety of artistry. That's the real thrill of this show, seeing the possibilities of the medium. It's energizing in a completely different way than any other comic-related convention. You go to the New York Comic-Con and you might be excited about what's coming out from Marvel in the next few months (or not), but those larger shows are like blown-up versions of your local comic shop. The big companies dominate the conversation (through the panels, and through their very presence), and the smaller publishers tend to get marginalized. At the MoCCA festival, it's all about the art of making comics, and you leave the show wanting to make your own comics. Wait until you see what Cartooning's Todd Casey came up with on the way home from the show. He couldn't wait to get back to the drawing board, literally.

Before we left to head back home -- and not accidentally take a left toward New Jersey, hopefully -- I picked up a few more things: the two most recent issues of "Tales Designed to Thrizzle," personalized by Michael Kupperman; "You Shall Die by Your Own Evil Creation," the new Fletcher Hanks book; "A Mess of Everything," by Miss Lasko-Gross, who tells me that her husband, Kevin Colden of "Fishtown" fame, walks around with a "Hi, my name is… Kevin and I'm an Eisner Nominee" t-shirt every day now; "Robot 13," the Mike Mignola-inspired robot-vs-tentacle-monster comic; the two most recent Star Wars tribute books, "Only What You Take with You" plus "And Don't Forget the Droids," both of which are fun follow-ups to last year's "Harvest is When I Need You the Most."

The Book of the Show

The most important -- most monumental purchase -- besides getting the first-ever CD from Tucker Stone's lovely wife "Miss Nina" (a wonderful collection of music for children that had my daughter laughing and dancing all morning on Sunday) -- well, that was David Mazzucchelli's "Asterios Polyp." I first mentioned this Mazzucchelli book way back in February of 2007, and I was led to believe that it was his version of Homer's "Odyssey." It certainly is, but not in the way I expected. "Asterios Polyp" doesn't get its official release until next month, so I was more than glad to get my hands on a copy this weekend -- signed, with a sketch, no less. It was certainly the book of the show, the best thing I saw all day, and the first thing I read on Saturday night. I have much more to say about Mazzucchelli's work in general and "Asterios Polyp" specifically, but I'll save that for a future "When Words Collide" column, sometime around the book's wide release. You're definitely going to want to read the book, though. It will no doubt end up at the top of a lot of year's end Top 10 lists. I might go so far as to say it's even better than that.

With our copies of "Asterios Polyp" weighing down our bags and pressing us to return home to crack it open for intensive study, Cartooning's Todd Casey and I hit the Henry Hudson and headed north. We were much less chatty on the way back to Massachusetts -- the perils of Jason Todd seemed infinitely less important -- and we spent the ride thinking about what we had seen. Everything we talked about on the way back had to do with what we would create next. What projects we would get underway this summer. Because that's what the MoCCA Festival does -- it makes the comics landscape better by making it seem like anything's possible in the world of graphic narrative. And it is.

In addition to writing reviews and columns for COMIC BOOK RESOURCES, Timothy Callahan is the author of "Grant Morrison: The Early Years" (which explores "Zenith" in great detail) and editor of "Teenagers from the Future: Essays on the Legion of Super-Heroes" anthology. More of his thoughts on comics can be seen every day at the Geniusboy Firemelon blog.

Follow Tim on Twitter: gbfiremelon

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TAGS:  when words collide, mocca festival, david mazzuchelli

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